Saturday night’s disheartening outcome in Houston was a microcosm of the Wisconsin football team’s recent struggles in big-game situations, but unlike the last four years, this big game will not leave the Badgers languishing in defeat for seven months.
The passing game suffered mightily for the entire 60 minutes. The defense bent under the pressure of two big injuries up front and then eventually broke in the fourth quarter. Then came a few questionable coaching calls, most notably Melvin Gordon carrying the ball just four times in the second half, following a first half where he had 76 yards and a score.
But despite the late game collapse, Wisconsin comes back to Madison with at least 11 more games to play this season. Over the past four years, this type of game has been in a bowl in the final contest of the year, in which Wisconsin has laid goose eggs. However, thanks to some scheduling boldness, the Badgers got an early season test against the Tigers to see how they stacked up against one of the nation’s most consistently strong football programs.
Yes, Wisconsin had a rather brutal second half as it coughed up a 17-point lead over the final two quarters, but what will most likely get lost a midst the talk of choking and the premature calls for Tanner McEvoy’s head, is the football team that took that 17-point lead on LSU. For two quarters and change, the Badgers looked like a team certainly worthy of its preseason No. 14 ranking and a legitimate threat to perhaps make a run for the first college football playoff. The most surprising part of it all was the defense, a defense that lost eight of its starting 11 from a year ago but still managed to hold the Tigers to a paltry 16 rushing yards in the first half.
Granted, one half of stats carries with it an insignificant amount of meaning because the second half eventually cost the Badgers the game, but it’s not as if this year’s team doesn’t have the potential to be something great. Had Wisconsin gotten rolled over by a superior SEC foe for four quarters, this might be an entirely different conversation. That was hardly the case, though.
The Badgers brought in an untested quarterback, a brand new set of receivers and a defense that was anything but the group that finished sixth in the nation a year ago in team defense. It’s hard to put a lot of faith in such an inexperienced team, which is probably why only Stone Cold Steve Austin of WWE lore was the only person on ESPN ‘s College Gameday to pick UW to win, but that didn’t stop Wisconsin from giving LSU a run for its money.
In the end, the Badgers got handed the biting four-point defeat, but the big-time first matchup gave Wisconsin something that no cupcake-trouncing win could have: a glimpse into what lies ahead the rest of the season.
So many things can change from now until the final regular season game come Nov. 29, but the coaching staff and players know after game one where the biggest deficiencies are. Last year, or really any other year, it wasn’t until the third game of the season or even later before the Badgers got a true test to see how they could actually fare against an above-average opponent.
Unfortunately, all of Wisconsin’s opponents also saw the biggest deficiencies and know that the Badgers are, at least as of now, about as one-dimensional as it gets, offensively speaking. The much anticipated debut of Tanner McEvoy had a few hope-worthy moments in the early going, including a couple of scampers to escape pressure, but ended in disappointing fashion with two second half interceptions and a woeful 50 yards total passing.
Equally as frustrating was the aforementioned lack of work in the second half for Heisman hopeful Melvin Gordon. Gordon ripped off a 63-yard run on the first carry of the second half, but went on to rush just three more times for one yard. His absence was thought to have been because of a possible injury, but when it was made known after the game that he was healthy, the move by head coach Gary Andersen and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig to give Corey Clement the bulk of the carries seems awfully perplexing.
Yet again multiple factors snowballed in a demise in an otherwise very winnable game, which has seemingly been the calling card of the Badgers in recent memory. In college football, close just isn’t good enough.
But although it was a lost opportunity, this loss didn’t mark the end of a season, and came at arguably a good of time as any. A run to the playoffs was a long shot, and even if Wisconsin had won Saturday night, despite improving their chances, they still would have been up against the odds. But there’s plenty of time and plenty of games to do something special this season, and with only one game in the books, a trip to the playoffs, although slim, is still a possibility. Now, the biggest question that remains the rest of the way is can the Badgers figure out a way to finally win one of these big games?
Dan is a junior majoring in journalism. How do you think Wisconsin will rebound from the opening game loss to LSU? Let him know by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweeting him @DanCoco7.